Our Need for More, Stronger and Better Unions
In my view, all workers should have the opportunity to join unions, and those unions should play a major role in representing us in the workplace and in the public square. Men and women died for the right to form unions, to strike, to bargain collectively. We need unions now to become the inspiring force and to play the vital roles in our democracy that they did during the Great Depression in the 1930’s. We need unions to become associations that workers want to proudly join.
We have had unions in this country since at least the 1890’s. They have played vital roles in securing better lives for unionized workforces and played key roles in social progress. In general, unionized workforces are paid more and have better benefits. They played key roles in developing the social safety net programs of the New Deal and the Great Society such as Social Security and Medicare. They played key roles in promoting safer workplaces, 40 hour work weeks and vacations. They played key roles in organizing and integrating immigrant workers into our nation.
Now we urgently need more, stronger and better unions. They have been on the decline since about the 1950s and now have only a vestigial presence in the private sector workplaces. The causes for their decline are partially self-inflicted and partly due to a concerted and consistent effort to destroy their power. In their decline, income distribution has tilted to the super rich, and wages have been stagnant or declining for far too many workers.
Self-inflicted wounds, first. They have not been aggressively or successfully organizing in the private sector. They have been weak or non-existent in many Southern states. Public employee unions have at times been major hindrances to needed progress such as educational reforms, policing reforms and health care reforms to improve quality, safety, outcomes and cost effectiveness. Some in the union movement made serious mistakes in opposing free trade and entry of immigrant workers, and in supporting trade protectionism. Some unions excluded people of color and harassed women workers. While jobs and the workforce demographics have been changing; union membership has tended to become older, whiter and more concentrated in the East, Midwest and California.
Union breaking, second. Taft Hartley in the 40’s, McCarthyism in the 50’s, Reaganism in the 80’s, the rise and spread of Walkerism from Wisconsin, and Trumpism in the present have all been a part of a concerted, persistent and largely successful efforts in the state and federal legislative bodies and the courts, as well as at job sites, to break and enfeeble America’s unions.
The loss of American manufacturing excellence and prowess in autos and steel and elsewhere represents the failure of management and labor to adopt the best and most modern manufacturing. Instead we blame Japan, or China, or India, or Mexico or Germany. We seek to build trade barriers rather than investing in the technological and other advances to build higher quality, lower cost cars and steel and aluminum. We fail to invest in updating our nation’s vital infrastructure.
The loss of coal jobs in West Virginia should have been counterbalanced by the development and manufacturing of alternative and renewable energy sources and jobs. Management and unions and government have all been partly to blame in the rise of global warming (and its deniers), and our failure to timely and more aggressively switch to renewable energy to preserve living conditions on our planet.
Our public education system is not serving all our children well -- the key to our nation’s future. Yet state and local teacher’s unions blame those charter and magnet schools that are doing a better job in educating children of color. Instead they should be emulating their successes, and they should be removing the worst performing teachers and administrators from their own professional ranks. They should be embracing pay that rewards excellence in teaching and educational achievement, not mere longevity in the profession. Craft unions demanding and promoting excellence and quality and better pay were a key component in the early growth of American unions; however over time they became highly exclusionary guilds. Craft unions sought to promote excellence by all their members; whereas sometimes teachers and administrator’s unions are caught up in protecting their least competent members. Some craft union principles might be usefully applied in teaching and other professional unions.
America is not well served by poor performing schools, declining public health, or closing rural and public hospitals, failing car manufacturing, or failing steel production, or decaying infrastructure or rising income inequality, or rising temperatures. We need a strong union movement to step up and lead in the challenges of developing a high performing, high wage, high quality, sustainable economy. We need sensible tax reforms to replace the recent grotesque giveaways to the richest Americans.
It’s a highly competitive global marketplace, and an equally competitive domestic market that we live in, so we need strong, flexible and adaptive unions and leaders – not walls, not tariffs, not exclusionary politics. We need to make it far easier for workers to organize a union, to replace its stagnant leadership and to change to a different union as circumstances warrant. We need to remove the obstacles that the NLRB, the employer community and their political allies erect to individual workers’ right to organize and to associate in a union format.
There are wonderful examples of who unions need to organize and what unions need to become -- Justice for Janitors is one; Working Partnerships is another; the Home Care Workers, the Day Laborers union, Child Care Workers, Temp Workers and many others. But they are small and particularized; what’s truly needed is sustained mass mobilization and a transformation of the union movement.
Let’s celebrate this Labor Day with a commitment to more, better, and stronger unionization.
Prepared by: Lucien Wulsin
Dated: September 1, 2018